Zibby is joined by Chief People Officer for Allbirds Laila Tarraf to discuss how three significant losses made her reconcile the tenderness of her personal life with the strength she had acquired in the business world. Laila shares the most valuable lessons she’s learned from her bosses through the years, and how combining courage and compassion may be the most advantageous thing you can do for both your personal and professional personas.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Laila. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to talk about Strong Like Water: How I Found the Courage to Lead with Love in Business and in Life.

Laila Tarraf: I am so happy to be here, Zibby, truly.

Zibby: Aw. Would you mind telling listeners a little bit about what your book is about and what inspired you write this memoir?

Laila: Strong Like Water has been described as a leadership book disguised as a memoir. It really doesn’t fall into one genre clearly, cleanly. It’s my personal story. It covers a period of time when I lost my husband and then my father and my mother in pretty quick succession. At the time, I had a young daughter. She was three. I was in my first year of my first real executive role as the Chief People Officer of Pete’s Coffee and Tea. It was the first time anything that big had happened to me. Up until that point in my life, I really held myself as, it’s fine, it’s fine, I’ve got it, really capable. I call it my hero persona. It was a moment where I could no longer hold myself in that way. Honestly, I might have tried had I not had a three-year-old that was crying and needing comfort. I was feeling so inadequate because I had suppressed my emotions my whole life. Finally, I said, you know what, if I don’t allow myself to feel now, I just knew that I would become hard and brittle and unable to guide my daughter through the kind of healthy grieving and healing that I wanted her to do. I couldn’t expect it from her if I didn’t do it myself. The story is really of that journey and how, as I went through that journey, I discovered that actually feeling my feelings didn’t kill me, didn’t weaken me, actually made me stronger and a better mother, a better friend, a better leader. What was soft actually turned out to be strong. That’s the story.

Zibby: I love that. Would you mind explaining what happened with the losses?

Laila: Sure. My husband died of an accidental overdose. It was very tragic and very sudden, partially because I think I was living this life of refusing to look at some very big signs that were out there that there were problems. Again, my coping mechanism was deny, distract, deflect. Keep it happy. Stay above it. That was obviously very traumatizing. Then my father had a stroke in his late sixties and died shortly thereafter, and then same thing with my mother. With each successive death — for a long time, I didn’t know how to tell this story because everybody experiences loss. For me, those losses ended up being the catalyst for me to recognize that I had numbed myself out to life. Maybe one wouldn’t have brought me to this realization, but all three and realizing that I had to get real, be authentic, allow myself to be vulnerable, be present, that’s when I really got to experience life, the bad, but also the good. I realized I had cut off the highs in addition to the lows by keeping myself protected.

Zibby: I am so sorry that you had to live through this. The fact that you not only did, got so many unintended almost benefits from it, not to put it so crudely, but then you could share it with the rest of us, that’s a true gift. Thank you for that. I feel like from the very start of your story I was relating to you in so many ways. Then I was like, should I even admit this when I talk to her? I had the same thing happen at one of my first jobs after college where I was kind of rolling my eyes and being like, what on earth? Come on, speed this meeting up. Why is it taking this other woman so long to articulate two or three points? Let’s move on with it. I could’ve been doing so much in this time. Then someone had to take me aside and be like, “You were kind of rolling your eyes.” I was like, “I was?” I thought that I felt that, but I guess I showed it. You had that same experience. Tell me about that.

Laila: I did. It’s amazing how this one moment twenty years ago sticks in my mind and really got me thinking. I was one of the early employees at There were like twenty of us sitting around a table. We were starting to build the company. The CEO at the time, her name was Jeanne Jackson. She was a really experienced executive. She was the CEO from Banana Republic. She was an executive at Disney. It’s one of these meetings where they just kind of go on and on. I was pretty fresh out of business school. I was just dying to add value. The meeting went on and on. I was bored. I had a lot of work to do. I thought I was doing a good job hiding my boredom and my irritation. I was not. As the meeting came to a close, Jeanne looked at me. Everyone was a little scared of her because she definitely let you have it if she didn’t think you were doing the right thing. She just looked at me. She wagged her finger at me, like, come over. I thought, oh, gosh. I’m thinking, what did I do? What did I do? I knew something was not right. I walked into her office. She said, “If I ever see you eyerolling like that again, there will be hell to pay. That was so disrespectful.” She kind of went off on me. I think she could tell that I was clueless. I didn’t know what she was talking about. Finally, as she opened the door to have me leave, she said, “The point of those meetings is not to add value, but to bring others along.” I’m like, what? Bring others along? What does that even mean?

I actually heard that lesson a few times. I think this is what happens for anyone who — you go through school. You want to get the A. You want to get the gold star. You want to please your parents and your teachers. That’s how we become these overachievers. That served us well for a really long time. There’s nothing wrong with that. At some point as you get into more complex roles, more senior roles where you have to lead others, you have to let go of this idea that you only create value by you actually producing something. Really, in the end, it becomes about the others that you’re leading. That means removing obstacles for them. That means mentoring. That means coaching, having the hard conversations. It very much is not about you and all about them. That journey, what I say, from me to we, is one I think that many of us who climb the management ranks go through. At first, it’s a tough one because you want to do it. That’s what you were taught to do. That was the first time I got my hand slapped. It probably took another ten years for me to really understand that my value was not in the doing, but in the enabling of others.

Zibby: Wow, those are good lessons even now.

Laila: It’s good for parenting too, right? How many times do we want to do it for our kids? I’m like, okay, go ahead.

Zibby: Seriously, I know. I think the thing that trips me up sometimes is I can do everything really quickly. After school and all of that training and whatever, I would get to work, and my work for the day I could do in an hour or something. I’m like, what am I supposed to do the rest of the day? Let’s go. What now? The same thing at times with the kids. I’m like, ugh, let me just do it. It’s the worst. I have to fight against it.

Laila: It’s so true. I could’ve been done with this ten minutes ago. Once again, that’s not the point. It’s about enabling them. My daughter is sixteen now, so I can really see that. I manage a lot of really young people now. You can see for young people whose parents have done everything for them, they’re ill-equipped to come out into the world because they’re used to someone diving in, the helicopter parent, and taking care of things for you. We don’t really serve our employees or our children by doing that for them. That’s what I try to remind myself every time. I’m like, okay, now I won’t do it myself.

Zibby: Yes, exactly. Even the way you handled your transition from Walmart to Peet’s and the way you talked about discovering this passion that everybody has for coffee and the way that you interviewed and the questions that you answered and that scene you have in the coffee shop where you went to the wrong place, which is so something I would’ve done — anyway, you end up at this store with the CEO and trying to answer all these questions and being surprised. You land this huge job. Take me back just for a minute to the beginning of that and realizing that now you had to do that job.

Laila: It’s so true. I felt like such an imposter. I really was so lucky that the CEO at Walmart gave me the chance to do the HR role. I had never done it. Then I had this interview. I actually didn’t know a lot of what the answers were. I could think through them. I had pretty good judgement. In the end, I landed this job where I thought, oh, my gosh, am I going to have to do this? I don’t think I wrote this in the book, but even after the job was offered to me, I tried to turn it down for a few weeks. The CEO was like, oh, no, you don’t. He got ahold of me. He’s like, “Explain to me why you don’t want it.” I was so scared. I thought, I’ve gotten myself in over my head. Again, so lucky that he saw something in me and supported me. What I learned there was you just act like you know everything. You’ve got all the answers. You’re super strong and capable. That’s how I showed up in that meeting, and I got the job. I’m like, okay, you see? That’s how you do it. Again, I was getting these mixed messages. Whenever I acted like I had it all under control, then things would work well in my professional life, not so much in my personal life. For a long time, I led this sort of separate life. There was my professional persona and then my personal. Then over time, I realized that, as we all realize, you are one person. I wanted to knit those pieces together and come together. In order to do that, I had to start to show more of who I really was. First, I had to do that for myself because I had been hiding from all the pieces that I didn’t like. I was trying to be perfect and strong. It wasn’t until I finally admitted I’m actually not all those things all the time, just like all of us, that I started to have actually deeper and better conversations with people.

Zibby: Then why write the book?

Laila: That’s a great question. Like all of us who write, I think I always had this little thing in the back of my head for decades that thought, I might want to write something, even if it was just a tiny, little voice. I found that I was starting to lose details of what had happened and what I had learned, really important insights. I thought, I should just write these down so I don’t forget. I started to journal. Then as I started to share some of the stories that I was coming up with with friends, more often than not, they would identify with them and say, oh, yeah, I know what you mean. I do that. Oh, yeah, I can do that. Even now, some of the early reactions I’m getting, I’m stunned by how many people say that they are identifying with my story. I got to a place where I decided to publish because, two reasons. I wanted to make sure I had something out there that would not allow me to hide anymore. I was so good at hiding my real feelings and hiding from my feelings. I just thought, you know what, I lived in fear for so long, I’m just going to be brave. I’m going to put it out there.

What’s interesting is now that I am bringing to light what usually is hidden, our broken pieces, our flawed pieces, things that make us sort of ashamed, what’s happening, and it’s still early days, it’s actually the thing that is ending up connecting me to others. I still had this moment where, oh, my gosh, have I really put this out there? I have good friends who have reconnected with me. They’re like, that was really brave. How are you feeling? I do feel exposed. I still get a little like, are you going to judge me for the bad mistakes and for what I’ve done in my life that I’m still like, oh, gosh, how could I have done that? The irony is it’s just the opposite. It is tapping into that part in everybody else that also has those feelings. I’m having the most meaningful, deep, intimate conversations with people I’ve known for decades that I’ve never had, and with people like you like today. In the end, isn’t that what it’s all about? We just want to be seen and loved, but we can’t have that unless we show ourselves. This is my big version of finally showing myself after hiding for forty years.

Zibby: Coming out with a bang here.

Laila: Yes, exactly. Go big or go home.

Zibby: I totally agree. Whenever I read people’s most raw, emotional, confessional admissions of the things that they’re least proud of, I feel connected. None of us are perfect, even the perfectionists among us. Deep down, we all are messing up all the time. It catches up with you in some way, shape, or form. To know that it’s not just you is very, almost, empowering.

Laila: And comforting on some level, don’t you know?

Zibby: Comforting is a better word, yeah.

Laila: Also, it just reaffirms to me that while the details of my story are unique to me and personal to me, the journey I’ve been on and continue to be on of self-discovery, that is the universal journey. Understanding ourselves better as we grow through self-reflection or however we want to do it, yoga, doing the work hopefully brings down our blind spots, our constructs, our narratives. That is how we show ourselves more. That is what connects us. I love that women are telling their stories now. Men are telling stories too. Women are such natural storytellers that I feel like all of us are doing this. That is what is bringing us together in community and in stronger connection. It’s going with this Me Too Movement, cultural norms breaking. One of the wonderful things about the young people I’m working with is they’re not as afraid. They’ll put it out there. I just think that’s amazing. That’s what’s going to bring us together.

Zibby: It’s so true. I don’t know if it was just the introduction of women into the workforce or as people got used to it, but I felt like even just a decade or two ago, there was so much rivalry all the time between women. I remember when I first started working, I was like, oh, gosh — I don’t know if I could say, but I was like, I hope I don’t have a woman boss because women bosses are so mean. The men, they just asked me what I needed to do. I did it. If I messed up, they said, oh, you messed that up. I was like, no problem, I’ll fix it. The women, it was really tough. I had some really wonderful women bosses as well. There was that culture, almost, of having to prove yourself by being rude to other women. Now it’s all shifted, thank goodness. Probably not everywhere.

Laila: Isn’t that amazing? I’ve experienced the same thing. A few reasons for that, I think one is there were fewer women, so the women that were there were like, this is my seat. There weren’t that many seats to go around. I think the women that got to the top twenty years ago had to do it in a man’s way because that was the form of power. That’s also been my learning. I can be strong and powerful, but I can also, at the same time, be kind and compassionate and empathetic. It doesn’t take away any of my agency. I think leaders are realizing that now, men and women. That is what is so amazing about this cultural shift that’s happening, that we’re starting to admit that and understand that. Even with one of my bosses the other day — I have two CEOs. We were going at it. He said to me, “Listen, when you say this, that makes me feel bad.” When he said that, I was like, oh, my god, no one would’ve said that twenty years ago. I thought, you’re right, I’m sorry. It just took us to this other level. The fact that we’re having that honest of conversations at work now I just think is awesome.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Laila, what is next for you? You have this book out. What’s coming next? What are you excited about it?

Laila: I’m excited about being at Allbirds. Do you know Allbirds, the company I work for?

Zibby: Yes.

Laila: We are in this crazy high-growth phase. I think I have another book in me. Maybe this next one is more of the how-to. I haven’t quite gotten the theme down yet. It’s going to continue to talk about how the answer for so many things is not usually one extreme or the other. I’ve been fascinated by the duality of life. My title, Strong Like Water, is after the Laozi quote which really talks about how water is soft, but it can be strong. It can carve rock. I find that to be true in just about everything. You’re trying to build a high-performance culture, drive for results, all these, go, go, go. At the same time, you want to create community and culture and connection and belonging. A lot of times, those feel like they’re on opposite ends of the spectrum. I really think what they are is the intersection of two circles. I’m always drawing these two intersecting circles and I’m saying, that middle part is the sweet spot. You can’t make a straight line through it. It’s sort of tacking back and forth. I think my next book will capture all the ways that we need to tack back and forth between the dualities of how we grow in a healthy and humane way, how we grow without losing our souls. There’s so much focus on getting big and making a lot of money, but then we kind of lose ourselves in the process. How can we have a little bit of both? Can we have them? I don’t know. We’ll see.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I feel like Allbirds are all the rage. It’s a good moment.

Laila: It is. We’ve had a good run.

Zibby: What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Laila: I feel like I’m such a new author. I think the most important thing is, just write. Don’t censor yourself. Don’t try to get it just right, just perfect. What does Brené Brown — she calls it the shitty first draft. I say that, SFD. That’s what it is. I wrote for a whole year until I found my voice and figured out what I wanted to write. If you’re judging yourself and censoring yourself and listening to the inner critic and trying to get it exactly perfect, you’ll never write. Just recognize that the process is in all the messiness. Eventually, it will come out and you’ll put form and shape and the narrative arc and all of that. Also, to come into community with other authors because I think writing can be very isolating. When you share with other authors if you’re having a down moment, if you’re in agony, if you can’t figure something out, I think it helps to know that you’re part of the larger community and a creative community.

Zibby: It’s so true. I’m so glad we connected today. Thanks for your book letting me relive that part of my life from so long ago.

Laila: You’re like, oh, gosh.

Zibby: I know. The losses you’ve gone through and the way you’ve gotten through them and the way you’ve shared your story is really awesome. Thank you.

Laila: Thank you. Thank you for taking the time to read the book. I’m still amazed that you can do all this.

Zibby: I don’t know. Hanging by a thread over here, but you know what? I love it. I just love it. It’s a pleasure. It’s a pleasure to read. Woe is me.

Laila: I was listening to one of your other podcasts the other day. I don’t remember who it was with. I also say this in my book. The antidote for stress is not rest. It’s wholehearted living. If you love reading books, then it actually fills you up, right? It’s not a chore.

Zibby: It does, yes. The emails, on the other hand…

Laila: Not so much sometimes.

Zibby: Not so much the emails. I love these conversations. I love reading books. That’s all great. It’s all great. It’s just a lot. That’s all.

Laila: You’re doing an amazing job. I love what you’re building. It helps bring us all together. Nice job.

Zibby: Thank you. I hope I get to meet you. Where are you in the world, by the way?

Laila: Me too. I’m in California. When this whole thing opens, which it is, I would love to come out and meet you in New York. Your retreat that you put out there was gone in like three seconds. I’m like, wait, I didn’t even know this was happening. That’s amazing.

Zibby: I opened up a new block of rooms.

Laila: Oh, you did?

Zibby: There are a couple rooms left if you want to come. There’s an inn nearby called the Weekapaug Inn. It’s owned by the same people. It’s really lovely. It has adorable rooms and everything. I have three or four rooms left.

Laila: I missed that. I’m going to go back and look at it.

Zibby: It’s on Go under the Travel thing under “more rooms available” until I take it down.

Laila: That’s awesome. Thank you, Zibby. Have a good day.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Laila: Buh-bye.



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